First, thanks to the former Weekend editor at The Davis Enterprise, Del McColm, who gave me space for a monthly column back in May of 1987. The first person I wrote about was Professor Will Baker of the UC Davis English department who defended his award-winning work of "creative non-fiction," a collection of short stories found in "Mountain Blood."
I was off to a good start. There were plenty of writers in the area to provide column material and I began writing weekly. UC Davis attracted wonderful visiting writers - some to teach, some for one-shot lectures. Raymond Carver and Allen Ginsberg both came to campus. I'll never forget Ginsberg chatting with his audience in Wellman Hall. "I've never had any crack," Ginsberg said. "Has anyone here ever tried it?" No one raised a hand.
Not all my encounters with writers have been pleasant. When Kurt Vonnegut came to campus in 1989, I wrote a harsh review of his talk. I thought his unrelenting pessimism about the state of the world was tedious and hardly worth his $10,000 speaking fee. I had the opportunity to talk to him privately the next day and followed my review with a more thoughtful column (he was sincerely unrelentingly pessimistic), but the damage was done. He saw my review of his talk and sent me a stinging letter, a letter so sarcastic and angry that I sold it to a collector for $100.
I found myself at a crossroads. I could try to make a lot of money insulting famous writers and goading them into print, or I could continue writing an upbeat weekly column about books and writers, focusing on Northern California. Hmmm. What to do?
I decided to stay with the column. I'm glad I did, because I was able to meet and write about Amy Tan ¹ and Sue Grafton ¹' ² before they achieved superstar status. I met Susan Allen Toth ¹ who writes about England in a way that makes me feel like I'm there. And I thought Canadian writer Margaret Atwood ¹' ² was as funny as she was acerbic.
Occasionally, there were disappointments, too. I have not yet met the amazing John McPhee, ¹ a superb non-fiction writer and one of my heroes, even though he spent a fair amount of time on the UC Davis campus working on a book of geology called "Assembling California." When I expressed interest in meeting McPhee, I was rebuffed.
"McPhee doesn't like groupies," a professor told me. I didn't know I was a groupie. However, later I did speak to McPhee by phone and wrote a column about his book and received an appreciative note in return.
Through this column I've met lots of other writers who have written beautiful works and are much less well known. Jean DuPrau's touching 1992 book, "The Earth House," about her female lover, their plans to build a house in the mountains, and her lover's untimely death, has stayed with me for years.
And thanks to Eric Schroeder, I was able to meet several men who became famous writing about the war in Vietnam. In the spring of 1995, Schroeder organized a conference (see photo) that featured Larry Heinemann ("Paco's Story") ¹' ² and Tim O'Brien ("The Things They Carried"). ¹' ²
I also won't forget having lunch with essayist Ted Hoagland ¹ and the late Wallace Stegner at Stegner's home outside Palo Alto. Hoagland was half-blind at the time (although a subsequent operation restored his sight) and needed someone to drive him to the luncheon. I was happy to oblige. Afterward, Hoagland and I drove to San Francisco, rode the cable cars, and had dinner with Herb Gold at a South of Market dive.
But the truth is I didn't have to leave Davis to find good material. Gus Lee ¹ lived in town when he began writing his autobiographical novels ("China Boy" was the first) and Yan Nascimbene ¹ is not only a fabulous artist but his book for children, "A Day in September," which he wrote and illustrated, is a gem. (see bottom of column for cover illustration)
Journalist John Jacobs ¹' ² ("A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton") is a Davis resident, as is fiction writer Laura Reese ("Topping From Below") and travel writer William Langewiesche ("Sahara Unveiled") ¹ - all interesting people that helped make for interesting columns.
Fantasy writer Peter Beagle ¹' ² ("The Unicorn Sonata") and his wife, Padma Hejmadi, could have chosen any place in the world to live but they chose Davis. Clarence Major ¹ ("Dirty Bird Blues") has always been willing to chat with me, and with science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson ¹' ² (photo and press release) and Karen Joy Fowler ¹' ² living in town, I could never run out of material.
And sometimes Davis people are mentioned in books, like the dangerous brush with history that Roger Bockrath had when, as a 20-year-old photographer in 1970, he tangled with the Black Panthers at the Marin Civic Center shootout. This was written up in Paul Liberatore's 1996 book, "The Road to Hell."
The world is shrinking, too. Officials at Peking University will remember me, unkindly, I think, after a visit there in 1996. I read a column on Jan Wong's "Red China Blues" to a class hoping to enter into a free-wheeling discussion of politics, riots and Tiananmen Square (see photos). The discussion was a disaster and everyone got upset. It was a lucky thing I was leaving in a few days. My host advised me not to bother applying for a teaching job at that particular institution.
Recently, poet Francisco Alarcon delighted me with a reading of his poetry for children ("Laughing Tomatoes") and I also was able to write about another Mexican-American, Richard Rodriguez ¹, who has never forgotten his Sacramento roots.
Forgive me for not being able to mention everyone and let me just say thanks to editors, readers and writers alike. If you have a suggestion or just want to comment on 10 years of "Printed Matter," I'd be glad to hear from you at email@example.com.